Philip Yancey

Life in a Bubble

A southern Bible college in the 1960s.

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Still, a part of me rebelled. The philosopher William James wrote after a visit to the Chautauqua camp meetings in 1896, "I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear. And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself … saying 'Ouf, what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage … to set the balance straight.'"

Whenever I write about my experience at Bible college, I get one of two reactions from readers. Some scold me for criticizing a godly institution and for distorting reality: "Did you and I attend the same school?!" former students have asked, indignant. Others from a wide variety of backgrounds—Catholic, Pentecostal, Worldwide Church of God, Seventh-day Adventist—recount their own stories of institutions that either shaped or shattered their faith. "Thank you for giving me permission to stop blaming myself for everything," they say.

I write not to demean the sincere people who ran the college (for this reason I avoid using the school's name) but rather to sort through the mixed messages I got there. I had a lively discussion with the man who served as president of the college during my last two years as an undergraduate, someone I greatly respect. "I know all sorts of juicy stories about people in Christian ministry," he said. "But I would never write about them because of the pain it would cause. I go by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as I would have them do to me."

As I thought over his comment, I realized that is precisely why I do write honestly about my past, even though it may cause others pain. I want readers to call me on my own inconsistencies and exaggerations and theological errors (and generally they are happy to oblige). I know of no more honest book than the Bible, which tells the ugly truth about its main protagonists (think of Moses, David, Peter, Paul) as well as the church established to carry on the tradition (think of James, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians, as well as the letters to the seven churches in Revelation). In contrast, the Pharisees and their kin exhibit one persistent flaw: an inability to take criticism. People and institutions naturally want to present themselves in the best light, and thus we rationalize or cover up mistakes. When we do so we move away from authenticity toward the very dangers Jesus warned against, in the process sealing off grace.

I met God at the school I am writing about, a life-changing experience worth twenty years in prison, let alone four years in a Bible college. Yet some people, including some whom I love, turned away from God at the same school. I look back on college days with whimsy; they remember mainly the pain of judgment and rejection, a sense of not fitting in. By listening to their stories I better understand Jesus' anger with the Pharisees, a surprising target since they were the most righteous and Bible-believing people of his day.

The Pharisees, accused Jesus, tithed their kitchen spices while neglecting weightier issues like justice. At other colleges students were protesting the Vietnam War and joining the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi. At our school we were debating such issues as the universal flood, hyper-Calvinism, and infant baptism. Yes, we studied the Bible, but selectively. In the words of Marilynne Robinson, "People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of 'to him who asks, give,' or 'sell what you have and give the money to the poor.'"

One year a student shot himself in the face with a pistol. That it was an accident, no one questioned: he was examining the gun when it went off, blasting a bullet through his jawbone. The owner of the gun had to write five hundred times, "I will not have a loaded gun in my room." This being the South, no one raised the larger issue of handgun possession. Another year a student drowned in a nearby river when a dam upstream unexpectedly raised the water level. His companion, distraught over his best friend's death, had to do a work penalty for swimming on Sunday.

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